When a domesticated chimp ripped off Charla Nash’s face in 2009, the world reacted with fascination and horror. Nick Jones, a 35-year-old playwright and television scribe (Orange is the New Black), followed the freakishly gruesome saga of the pet simian’s attack with the keen eye of a dramatist who knows good material when he sees it. With Trevor, opening this week at A Red Orchid Theatre, Jones concocts an unnerving mix of comedy and tragedy to explore a ripped-from-the-headlines collision of man and nature.
Jones took a break from his latest OITNB deadline to chat about Trevor, why it’s an ideal show for A Red Orchid, and whether our beloved pets actually reciprocate the affection we feel for them.
Trevor was inspired by Travis, the chimp who left a woman so disfigured she required a face transplant. The event was tragic, yet Trevor is often laugh-out-loud funny. Did you approach the story as a comedy or a tragedy?
It’s not really either. In my notes, I really push the actors to explore the comedy of the story, because the premise—somebody treating a pet monkey like an actual, human member of the family—is undeniably comedic. But it ends tragically, there’s no getting around that.
What inspired you to turn such a grisly event into a drama?
The more details that emerged about Travis and his life with the woman who owned him, the more interested I got. She had recently lost both her husband and her son, so Travis was all she had. Then there were all these reports that she’d taught him to drive, that he’d worked with Morgan Fairchild on some TV show—basically he’d been a ‘child star’ who stopped getting work once he hit puberty. I thought the story had all the makings of a Great American Tragedy. I’m not telling Travis’s story, but if you know about that going in, it’s a bonus. It adds a built-in layer of anxiety or tension to everything because you know what that the potential for something horrible to happen is pretty intense.
While I was writing Trevor, I was also thinking a lot about that killer whale at Seaworld that killed its trainer [in 2010]. I started noticing a pattern with that story—when animals attack, first there’s a bunch of splashy headlines about the horror of the whole thing. Then there’s the ‘how-could-we-have-let-this-happen’, ‘why-did-the-animal-go-berserk?’ follow-up stories. Which strikes me as just wrong, the fact that when a killer whale actually kills someone, we see that as an abnormality. But what’s really abnormal is that the animal didn’t attack someone for so long. It seems so obvious but we always seem to miss it: When a killer whale attacks you, hello, it’s because it’s a killer whale. There’s nothing berserk about it.
One thing I really find intriguing about Trevor is his desperate need to stay in the spotlight. Like Travis, Trevor started out as this adorable little guy that everybody fawned over. Are you commenting on the perils of child actors who turn into train wrecks after adolescence?
I definitely wanted to show a parallel. Chimps are only used in show biz until they’re adolescents, then their genitals get all red and engorged, and nobody wants to see that. Chimps hit puberty around 8 or 9, and they can live to be 50 or 60. So that’s a long, long time to be retired. And if you can’t get used to being out of the spotlight, you’ve got trouble. I was also thinking about the issue of children who grow up to become dangerous—the ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ [Lionel Shriver’s fictional bio of a boy who grows up to be a mass murderer] aspect of things. The Columbine shooters were toddlers once.
Your leading man is a chimp who doesn’t understand most of the dialogue the human characters engage in. Was that a challenge, creating a main character who A) isn’t human and B) can’t effectively talk to anyone?
Not nearly as much of challenge as it would have been having an actual chimp play the part. I’ve found it’s most successful when the actors playing Trevor take on a few animal mannerisms without going full monkey. I definitely did not want someone in a monkey suit on stage, that would never be anything but zany. I initially wrote it so that Trevor would be played by a guy in a diaper, but that didn’t work either.
Trevor sees himself as a man; it’s important that we see him as he sees himself. I want the audience to understand Trevor and empathize with him, but at the same time to be constantly reminded that he’s an Other. Ultimately, I think Trevor is about communication and the idea that even when you think you’re communicating perfectly with someone, they’ll never be able to see the world exactly as you do.
You grew up in Anchorage. Did you have pets as a kid?
Rabbits. Cats. I had an octopus for a long time. We used to lower plastic action figures into his tank and watch him try to eat them. I also had a Siberian Husky, but we had to give him away because he kept biting people.
In Trevor, the chimp’s owner loves truly believes his feelings and his intellect are on a par with a human. Do you have any theories about why we anthropomorphize our pets so intensely?
Partly because they’re such incredible companions—animals never contradict you. They are unwaveringly loyal. They offer a pure, uncomplicated relationship. If you’ve got a complicated life with a lot of sadness in it, you can cling to your pets like a life raft.
You spent a weekend with A Red Orchid, checking out their rehearsal process for Trevor. What’s your impression of the theater?
It’s about perfect for this play. Small, intense, intimate. When the audience is as close to the action as they get at A Red Orchid, the play becomes that much more intense.
You’re in the middle of second season episodes for Orange is the New Black. Please tell me that Piper didn’t bash Pennsatucky’s skull in and that they’ll both be back.
I can’t talk about that.
The only thing I can say is most everyone’s favorite inmates will be back.
Trevor continues through Dec. 3 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. Tickets are $30, $25 students and seniors. For more information, go to aredorchidtheatre.org.